On 23 April
2018, the movie Sobibor, directed by Konstantin Khabensky, had its world
premiere in Warsaw’s Teatr Dramatyczny. Local premieres will take place soon in
Vilnius and Moscow. The film, distributed in dozens of countries, tells the
story of the last two weeks of the Sobibor Nazi German Death Camp, during which
there was a rebellion and mass escape of prisoners. The narrative of the film
presents the events in a manner characteristic of Russian historical policy.
The world premiere coincided with a dispute between Poland and Russia regarding
the commemoration of events shown in the movie.
Why is their controversy about the location of the world premiere?
The film was not made in
Poland nor did it include Polish producers. It was mostly filmed in Lithuania
and the film is a Russian production. The organisation of the world premiere in
a country that did not participate in the preparation of the finished film (except
for Polish actors) is not a widely accepted practice. Stranger still, the movie
is aimed at a foreign audience and promoted in cinema markets outside Poland.
Reports from the Warsaw premiere were transmitted almost exclusively by Russian
media, and the only officially declared reason for it to have been in Warsaw
was that the Sobibor camp was operational in occupied Poland.
Does Khabensky’s film faithfully present the historical events?
Like most films, complete
adaptation to historical events is not expected, not least for dramatic
reasons. Nevertheless, the lack of or emphasis on certain historical aspects is
significant, in part because of public perception. The film essentially ignores
the leader of the rebellion, a Polish Jew from Żółkiewka, Leon Feldhendler. Instead,
it features Jews from the Red Army and mainly the officer Alexander Pechersky
rather than those from other countries. People who do not have full knowledge
of the events of October 1943 may be view the rebellion based only on the
interaction of the Soviet prisoners, the German SS, and the Ukrainian guards.
This results in an extremely loose interpretation of history.
What role does the Sobibor revolt play in Russian historical politics?
For many years, Sobibor
occupied a marginal place in the Soviet then Russian politics of memory. The
symbol of liberation was the camp at Majdanek, then Auschwitz-Birkenau. The
rebellion in Sobibor began to be more widely examined only with the increasing
emphasis on the tragedy of Soviet Jews in recent years. Pechersky himself was
persecuted in the post-war USSR and he was not allowed to participate in Sobibor
criminal’s trials in different states. In 2016, Russian President Vladimir
Putin honoured the officer posthumously with the Order of Valour, following a
similar gesture made by Poland in 2014 (Chevalier Cross of Merit of the
Republic of Poland, presented to his daughter by the Polish ambassador to Russia).
The film Sobibor was also screened at
a closed showing with Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 29
January. The leaders then emphasised the communication of the history of Israel
and Russia in the context of the uprising in the camp.
Why is the Holocaust so important to Russian memory policy?
Myths related to the
role of the Red Army in the liberation of the extermination camps and the fate
of Soviet citizens in those camps are used in Russian historical policy in many
ways. First, it is an attempt to join the narrative about the Holocaust with an
honorary place for Russia as a depositary of this memory. Second, it is an
example of Russia’s taking over the memory of other states established after
the collapse of the Soviet Union even though most of the victims of the
Holocaust who had Soviet citizenship were not Russian. Third, it is used as an
element to strengthen relations with Israel by increasing the sense of an historical
connection with Russia. Fourth, by suggesting that Poles and Ukrainians were “Hitler’s
supporters,” Russia is trying to counter messages about Soviet crimes from the
Second World War committed against Poles or Ukrainians.
What is the political controversy about commemorating the victims of the Sobibór Camp and Russia’s participation in similar undertakings?
Steering Committee of the project to create a new museum and memorial at the
former extermination camp is composed of representatives of Poland, Israel, the
Netherlands, and Slovakia. It does not exclude Russia’s participation in
projects related to the commemoration of the victims, including during the
upcoming anniversary of the rebellion. Nevertheless, Russia was
not invited to be on the committee itself and its attempts to join have unanimously been blocked by committee members. Serious controversy also was raised by Russia’s attempts
in 1995, 2005, and 2015 to monopolise the memory of the liberation of the
Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Russia considers itself one of the main depositaries
of the memory of the Holocaust and considers attempts to maintain or restore
historical truth as an attempt to re-write and falsify it instead.